You walk into Wilcox and cannot find your friends so you sit with someone you vaguely remember to be the roommate of one of your friends in a Butler quad. It is not weird to sit with random people in Wilcox so you sit with her. You have been sitting on your ass all day and can only work up the appetite for a small cluster of grapes plus a pile of Mini Wheats around a center slab of peanut butter.
The dining hall lurches with athletes. You sit down next to your friend’s maybe-roommate and she looks down at her own plate. “Wow,” she says, “you’re eating so little.” You apologize, say it’s not that common (which is true) and that you’re probably going to get more food (which is not). “I mean,” she says, giggling, “I just feel like shit now. Look at my meal next to yours, it looks like mine could eat it.” She eats only half the food on her plate.
When she leaves, you think about it longer than you should. This meal is one of the few that might actually fit into the daily calorie log you still have an app for on your iPhone but haven’t touched since winter break. You didn’t have to apologize for what you decided to voluntarily put into your digestive tract, weren’t compelled to make up for demonstratively eating peanut butter and cereal. You apologized because you have also been the roommate of one of your friends in a Butler quad and have felt like you could watch your own waistline expanding with each forkful of whatever mysterious cheese layer slips in between lasagna pasta slats. You too have felt embarrassed or gluttonous or aggressively proud of your appetite’s velocity and fortitude. Look at the lack of food on your plate and wonder if it is awful or honest to be proud of it.
Dillon Gym is open 6:30 am to 1 am, longer than any of Princeton’s libraries that contain books. The belly of Dillon Gym houses Stephens Fitness Center with its rows and rows of machines occupied by bodies as silent, regular and self-possessed as robots.
Only one of the treadmills—“tread” “mills,” factories to churn out strides—is vacant. You step on and start to run faster and faster as the conveyor belt whizzes out madly from under your feet. In the mirror that occupies the entire wall in front of you and stares you in the face, you watch other people sweat beautifully—sweat is weakness leaving their bodies as they chase the fronts of their treadmills like they want to crash through them.
To distract yourself from the monotony and the way your throat is starting to ache from trying to keep up the pace, you look at the digital display of how many miles you have trodden through and input your age and weight, just because.
You look up again and your eyes find the mirror and the reflection of your own face, bobbing up and down as you run, pallid and gasping. Your legs flash into view, fleshy and perhaps a little wobbly and unsure.
You look at the numbers on the display and tell yourself you’ll stop at the next five-minute mark. When you reach it you pull a fast one on yourself and speed up instead to run five more minutes and then five more minutes after that and five more after that and you are gliding now, you are propelling yourself through the air like Mercury for just a little longer, every five minutes of pounding breathlessness is five minutes closer to dropping those pounds, to dropping that ballast that is keeping you from the light, shapely, effortless beauty you always wanted.
Thirty minutes blink onto the screen, as if you’ve won a prize. The treadmill slows you down to a brisk walk and kindly informs you of how many calories you have burned off, squeezed out, extracted.
You make your way to the door and emerge outside, where the wind chills your sweaty neck.
You are a healthy mind in a healthy body.
Amy Chua’s book The Triple Package talks about the three traits of strikingly successful groups. As she puts it: “The first is a superiority complex—a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite—insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.” Princeton students are a successful group like any other.
You eat for the first time this year with a friend you were close to two years ago. Back then she weighed less than eighty pounds. Today she is supposedly in control of her urge for self-control, but her body is still one long line and she wears oversize sweaters to hide her concave stomach. You think cynically that this is unlikely to change because her closest friends are almost as skinny as she is.
She clutches her silverware in her long, thin fingers and slowly and deliberately she sections off little pieces of food. At the end of the meal she leaves everything on her plate except lettuce leaves and slivers of grilled vegetables. You are no longer close enough for it to be your place to say anything. You just stare at the food still steaming on her plate, untouched. Suddenly your meal seems like too much. Think how much oil stir-fried zucchini absorbs and sweet and sour tempeh has a lot of calories and you’ve even gone back for cereal.
As she curls her hands around a mug of pale tea you retreat into the servery where another healthier but still very slender friend of yours is filling a bowl with stalks of raw vegetables. She doesn’t see you see her hovering in front of the bread for what seems like several minutes, picking a piece up with the tongs and putting it down and eventually ripping off a bite-sized morsel.
You wish you, too, ate with such care and attention; that you ate only an essential amount of food. There is something purer about that.
You plunk your things down at one of the round tables in Frist and decide that before doing your reading, you’re going to have a look around Facebook. But you can only scroll past so many swimsuited profile pictures smothered in comments that exclaim “OMG gorgeous” and “model status” and “hottie with a body!!”
You click over to Tiger Admirers for a cheap laugh at the poorly written love poetry. Treacly laments abound: “I guess we were never meant to be but I just can’t get over you.” But there are also very many messages of encouragement to attractive people glimpsed at the gym: “keep doing what you’re doing.” All the ladies working out in Dillon gym at 1 am are praised for their dedication. Girls are complimented for having “been looking fine lately” even though people might not have noticed—code for weight loss. And even the comments based on their personalities often say that they “seem” like really nice people, because a beautiful person looks like a kind person. Tiger Admirers rewards people for being conventionally beautiful, you realize as you tab to admired people’s profiles, Graph Searching those who defend their privacy.
You keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling through pictures of beautiful people until suddenly it is 9:30 pm and you are sitting there with a plate mottled with the oil of two cookies from Late Meal. You tried to ask yourself whether you should buy them, whether you were hungry, but you wanted a study break and you thought you would be happier if only you made sure you were well fed. Then you told yourself you’d eat half of one, then just one and not the other, but fragment after fragment you finished even the crumbs.
You walk down the Street in quick, purposeful strides, trying to look confident. Other girls, taller and blonder, prance past you in sharp heels and polar fleece. They carry roadies in their Vitamin Water Zero bottles. A group of men ambles behind them, imbued with a different, calmer certainty. They are tall and broad and look as if they were cast in bronze; they take up the whole sidewalk and the gravel beside it all the way into the gutter. When they walk past you they do not part around you and you have to duck into the walkway of Campus Club.
You are and have always been slim—“small,” people always say, as if it is about how much space you occupy—but six months ago, when you weighed ten pounds less than you do now, men not only acknowledged your presence, they paid attention to you. The tall beautiful ones too, sometimes. They would drunkenly walk up to you and ask you strange, irrelevant questions. They deferred to you more, which always left you with a strange feeling that occupying less space gave you more power.
At TI you lean over the bar and smile but nobody hands you a beer for a while and you are sure it’s because you don’t know any of the guys who are at the tap but for a second you wonder whether you are insufficiently pretty to be promptly served beer. You forget about this and go dance.
“MORE CHICKEN! CHICKEN FINGERS FOR THE WHOLE DAMN TABLE.”
Your friend slams two paper plates heaped with fried and magnificently crisped chicken fingers onto the small table in the late meal section of Frist. Flimsy wooden chairs scrape around the floor. People in various states of sobriety wander around your table. Ketchup overflows. You realize this is the first time in a while you have seen people eating more and caring less than they do even in leisure spaces—in meals, in line for treadmills, in Frist during the day. Even when it is late and professionalism is off-duty, everyone at Princeton is serious about something. Only now—“Move the tray, por favore,” your friend says in a false Italian accent. “Parmagiana, rigatoni, pizzeria, chicken eh feengers”—it’s paused.
As the Old Orchard Mall water fountain was to Cady Herron’s North Shore High School, Frist at 2 am on a Saturday night is the equivalent of Princeton’s strange, animalistic watering hole. Here, in this ephemeral, inebriated flashmob, it is socially acceptable to behave without control. During the day, it seems necessary to remain immune to excessive stimuli—watching students navigate lunch choices and it seems to you as though Princeton is an exercise in avoiding giving in to excess. Now, watch girls in mini skirts you only recognize from the Stephens Fitness Center consume bacon pizza with impressive speed. You understand that what you are seeing only exists because your classmates are off-duty and have relinquished their compulsion for control. Eliminate control (and factor in drunchies) and you get a quesadilla larger than your face.
You are about to fall asleep but you looked at the weather forecast for tomorrow on your phone and it is not going to be freezing so you feel like celebrating. Decide to try on your spring clothes, flounce around in floor-length skirts.
You have extricated a skirt you put away after the warm October days stopped happening with any regularity. When you put it on in front of your mirror it doesn’t fit like it did at the beginning of the year. You do not regret any of the Wilcox muffins (because all of them were consumed with transcendent devotion only paralleled by the deeply religious), nor the mornings you spent sleeping instead of dragging your gym shoes through snowstorms (because snow is a universal mandate to sleep and enjoy the hot chocolate packets your mother sent you in the mail), nor do you miss hating your legs and stomach and chest like you did in high school (because you wanted to be a professional ballerina even though your flat feet ruled that out from the get-go).
Yet, you wonder if you should wonder more, worry more. Like stress and sleeplessness, slenderness seems to be inherent. Everyone you know here is thin and getting thinner. There is a scale in your bathroom now and you are afraid to step on it.